Friday, July 18, 2008

Wanted: new myths

I'm back on the right (which is to say, the left) side of the Atlantic, though I think I need at least another week to recover from the one I spent in England. My conference was great, despite running pretty much 9-5 for five days--and despite my going out nearly every night with conference buddies and squeezing in visits with unaffiliated friends around the edges.

I always return from conferences exhausted and overstimulated, but this time I'm also grappling with what feels like the overturning of some deeply-held beliefs, or what Evey would call foundational myths. She's used this term, at least in my hearing, mainly as a way of explaining relationships that look peculiar from the outside; an example would be a relationship that began when one party was the most popular and sought-after kid in school and that has maintained those dynamics even as years have passed and circumstances have changed. The formerly popular kid may no longer be particularly attractive or successful--and everyone who now knows the couple may feel it's actually his or her partner who's the charming one--but that's not how the parties involved see it.

Now, if you asked me what I consider the foundational myths of my academic career, I'd probably give you a fairly positive narrative having to do with my not having arrived at grad school particularly well-prepared, or talented, or receiving a lot of support--but nevertheless having persevered and even prospered. What I tend to omit, even from my own conscious thoughts, is the amount of insecurity, anger, and resentment that shadow this narrative and that continue to inform much of my professional self-conception.

At this conference, though, I started to feel the inutility (and maybe the inaccuracy) of these old and only dimly acknowledged beliefs. First, I had a number of interactions with my advisor, which, while in some ways entirely typical, felt different--and largely positive. I also ran into the person I've previously described as my nemesis. My pulse started racing the moment I glimpsed the back of Nemesis's head (which was recognizable to me, even from behind and at a distance, in the same way that the back of an ex's head would be recognizable--which is to say, totally unrecognizable except to the one person who daily dreads and expects to see it). Our actual interactions, though, were free of nemenosity. Nemesis was genuinely friendlier than in our past few encounters, but, as with Advisor, it's more that I decided that behaviors I'd previously taken personally probably weren't meant that way.

I also hung out with some exceptionally cool people--some previously known to me, some not--including my my go-to conference buddy, Fritz. Fritz's strengths as a conference buddy include being a) funny as all fuck, and b) as ready to stay out until last call as I am--but he's also very smart, and I was both startled and touched almost to the point of tears when he took up the subject of my paper, insisted on my taking it further than I'd been inclined to, and defended part of it against Advisor's rather off-hand dismissal.

And--well, other good things happened, too, but the list gets boring at this point. What it boils down to is that I'm realizing that my old insecurities and resentments may once have been useful, and even comforting. . . but perhaps it's time to let them go.


Bardiac said...

Good on Fritz!

Grad school is so bleeping painful, isn't it? Even years later, it's hard to leave things behind.

squadratomagico said...

It happens. You grow out of those resentments, and instead start forming new myths that give meaning to the narrative of the job- search-through-tenure phase of life. The myth about attaining stability, finding your place.

Then you reach to the new life phase of joining a circus and... oh, right. Sorry.

Doctor Cleveland said...

It's good that you're leaving those foundational myths behind. Because, speaking as someone who met you after graduate school, that account of yourself does not seem terribly plausible, let alone persuasive. It's not like the rest of us stand around at conferences saying, "Oooh, here comes Flavia; she used to be The Little Match Girl. Look how improbably, unexpectedly well she turned out!"

As for not being particularly "talented" at the outset of grad school ... how would you have been in a position to judge that, grasshopper? And are talents that only emerge during the training process somehow not talents? Blogger, please.

Forgive the left-handed compliments. The confrontational style is only an idiomatic way to say, in Flavia-ese, that as far as the rest of us are concerned you were born fabulous, and it shows.

Flavia said...

Hm. As foundational myths go, "born fabulous" does have a certain appeal. I'll take that one under advisement.

(Except--wouldn't that make the rest of you terribly jealous?)

Susan said...

You might want to say that "in spite of these things" you are now successful, smart, and making a contribution. That is, you don't have to drop the whole story (though it might be interesting to think about that) but that it no longer defines you.

Doctor Cleveland said...


Good. Some of us enjoy your fabulousness, actually, and are pleased for you.

As for jealousy and its many terrors ... are you under the impression that no one in your professional life is ever jealous of you, or intimidated by you? (I'm not speaking about anyone or anything specific here, just about general principles.) If you're reevaluating your professional self-image you might consider the possibility that you yourself might (indeed, undoubtedly if inadvertently do) trigger other people's insecurities from time to time. I've certainly never seen you try to intimidate anyone else. But you are very smart and very poised, and jealousy and intimidation, alas, are in the eyes of the beholder.

Here's how it works: you can't have the brains AND the shoes AND the lovable underdog persona. Even if you deserve them all ... life's unfair that way.